Prior to visiting, my basic knowledge of Luang Prabang extended to it’s reputation as a magical place. But I wasn’t prepared for quite how magical it actually was.
Within a few hours of arriving I was calling the airline to try and delay the departure by an additional couple of days, however that was not to be so it was a case of making the most of the four days I had.
I stayed at the Maison Souvannaphoum and the warm greeting on arrival set the stage for the rest of the duration. The building had been owned by the former Prince Souvanna Phoum and the hotel named in his honour. Built around a lap pool with water feature at one end this boutique hotel finds its way into your heart very quickly and soon you’ll find yourself never wanting to leave. Designed in classic white Colonial Style the Maison is part of the Banyan Tree group; the evidence of this found in the small details e.g tinges of orange throughout the hotel reflecting the orange of the Buddhist monk robes that can be seen hanging from the clothes line in the monastery next door.
Maison Souvanaphoum offers a spa accomodation package, that includes a daily massage, to further enhance the state of serentiy you’ll soon find yourself in if you stay here.
The centre of Luang Prabang is made for walking. Maison Souvannaphoum is perfectly placed to stroll out of and explore the town. Within no time I am struck by how special L.P is after wandering out of the hotel gates. After only a few paces I've come to a Buddhist Monastery, after a few more another temple. Ornate Wats (Buddhist Temples) are situated at regular intervals along the main promenade and between them are dotted Boulangeries, Patisseries and Cafes recreating a slice of French heaven in South East Asia. There are of course traditional Laotian eateries to be found too.
And then there are the shops, literally teaming with local handicrafts from the nearby villages – textiles and silver jewellery mainly. A handful of designer clothes stores and an overpriced but exquisite home décor store have popped up too. The shops are surprisingly expensive for a town that has only recently become a tourist mecca. Seemingly Luang Prabang is attracting quite the wealthy traveller, although it has much to attract the backpacker too.
It doesn’t take long to realize that this is a place one could languish for days, drinking coffee on café terraces while you watch the world go by slowly. Soon days would become weeks and weeks would become forever and you find that you never left. Clearly that has been the case for the many Western Expats in town who have established businesses here.
Luang Prabang is just so easy a place to be. No wonder the acronym PDR (People’s Democratic Republic of Laos) is said to also stand for Please Don’t Rush. Make no mistake, Luang Prabang is an Asian City – it has the tuktuks (complete with drivers sleeping in hammocks while they await their next customers), street vendors, scooters but with that you get none of the horn blowing noise so synonymous with Vietnam or the hassling of street vendors found in places like Bali. The roads are relatively quiet and easy to navigate.
Pass the delightful Wats, Cafes and Shops and you’ll find yourself at the end of the main street, greeted by the wondrous sight of the Mighty Mekong River that curls around the town. The Mekong Riverview Hotel is situated over the River and its outdoor dining terrace has the best view in town. Watch the Long tail boats go by and see the fisherman do whatever the fishermen have been doing here for centuries.
A narrow rickety bamboo bridge takes you to the other side of the Mekong river where it’s possible to keep on walking and exploring the local villages. Or if you’d rather, just pause and look back at the serene landscape. Groups of monks cross the bridge every so often and the vibrant orange of their robes adds a dramatic contrast to the scene before you. It’s hard not to find yourself overcome with emotion, awestruck by a part of the world that’s so at odds with the demands of the busy one you’ve travelled from.
As the day moves towards night visitors to Luang Prabang climb the steps of Phousy Mountain, located in the middle of the town, to watch the sun set over the city and its surrounds. It’s a challenging climb but if you have average physical fitness you’ll have no problem doing it at your own pace and the view at the top will be your reward.
At 5pm the market vendors from the surrounding areas begin setting up their stalls and a kilometer of the main street is closed to traffic and transformed into a marquee-lined promenade. This is a market so very different from the norm in South East Asia; not full of designer copies but instead a display of locally made artisan handicrafts with very little high pressure selling from the traders. On show are colourful silk or leather embroidered bags and purses, quilts and runners and rice paper paintings. If it’s more your thing there are also plenty of “I love Laos” t-shirts and traveller trousers.
My favourite finds from the markets and local artisans can be found here http://templesandmarkets.com.au/collections/fabulous-finds-from-luang-prabang-night-market
It’s possible to negotiate in either the local currency the Kip or if you prefer Thai Baht or U.S$.
I visited Luang Prabang in January when the weather is sublime. At night the temperature is a comfortable 18 degrees centigrade with no humidity, perfect for exploring the markets. After a cool start to the mornings the mercury hits a sunny 27 degrees by about 10am and clear blue skies become the backdrop for the day’s activities.
Luang Prabang is famed for its nearby waterfalls A 45 minute drive takes you to Kuang Si Waterfalls, the most popular group of waterfalls, where the surrounding limestone gives the water its vibrant turquoise colour. This was quite simply one of the most beautiful spots on earth I had ever experienced, a big call I know but it really was. The water is clear and pure enough to drink; its temperature cool in January although it’s obligatory to jump in if only for even the quickest swim. The swimming area gets busy but arrive early (around 10.30am) before the crowds and drink in the kind of experience that travel memories are made of.
Walking to the waterfalls you pass the Bear Sanctuary, supported by the Australian charity Freethebears, and you’d be hard of heart if you didn’t linger a while to gaze at the Asiatic Black Bears, rescued from a previously miserable caged existence. Stop and watch these gorgeous playful creatures and read the stories behind each one and learn about the depressing illegal poaching trade and the business of harvesting bear bile for Chinese Medicine. It was such an honour to be up close to Noy and Deng and the rest of their Bear friends thankful that they've been given sanctuary from that former life.
The village closest to the waterfalls is a haven for visitors – a row of restaurants, each with their own bbq’ing lady at the front grilling chicken, river fish and seafood. Here I first tried a delicious dish of crispy river weed with garlic and shallot as well as the Laotian version of the Northern Thailand soup Khao Soi. The broth isn’t as thick as found in Chiang Mai but it was tangy and warming after the cool dip in the waterfall pool earlier. Wasn’t expecting to enjoy such a fabulous lunch feast; probably the most outstanding meal of the stay in Luang Prabang.
In recent years a Buddhist custom adhered to by the locals in Luang Prabang has become a bit of a tourist sideshow. Nonetheless I wanted to experience the Alms giving ceremony for myself. Before sunrise the locals line the streets ready to offer food, in reverence, to the monks who file past food filling their alms bowls. Capitalising on the tourist interest some locals are up and about first to sell us biscuits and sticky rice that we in turn offer the monks. 100 Thai baht buys a basket full of carbs for the monks. Not exactly the spiritual experience I was hoping for and I couldn’t help worrying that this wasn’t the most nutritious start to a monk’s day. After about 15 minutes the whole thing was over and it was back to bed for a while. A few hours later it was time to leave magical Luang Prabang where even the airport was built to look like a temple.
Angsana Maison Souvanaphoum, Luang Prabang http://www.angsana.com/en/ap-laos-maison-souvannaphoum
3 Nagas Restaurant – One of Luang Prabang's most luxurious boutique hotels has the area's smartest dining option. An old teak house on the main street serves typical Laotian dishes such as Nem (a lettuce wrap similar to Chinese San Choy Bow) and crispy river weed. Service was incredibly friendly and world class.
Viewpoint Cafe at the Mekong Riverview – For the best view in town perched over the Mighty Mekong. Order a bottle of wine or sip on a Laotian coffee and marvel at the picture postcard landscape before you.
The Terrace Cafe and Restaurant – many cafes to choose along the main road but The Terrace was the standout spot for me to sip my Laotian Iced Coffee.
Village adjacent to Kuang Si Watefalls - Ate at second food stall on the left coming away from the waterfalls
My journey through Luang Prabang is fired by my passion for South East Asia and by my love of discovering social enterprise artisan businesses. Reignite your travel memories too, by choosing ethically sourced gifts that empower people.
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